"What is this? What the Hell happened to U2? This can't be U2!" Words like these screamed the minds of millions of fans upon breaking the plastic on the 1991 tape, CD or record Achtung Baby and playing the first few notes of the opening song, "Zoo Station."
U2's humble-bordering-on-elitist stance of understated rock and roll from the eighties was brought to a quick and sudden end with the release of Achtung Baby. No longer were they folk rockers with a little feedback and echo nor were they striving for their punk goals from before their first album. Now, U2 was experimenting with wah-wah pedals, inordinant amounts of delay, and phasing of their sound through any degree of stereo combinations.
The opening consists of a percussive tapping of glass and an overdriven guitar slide. A complete turn from the airy melodic intro to "Where the Streets Have No Name" from their breakthrough album The Joshua Tree. The noise is bordering on metal, punk, or the yet-to-be discovered grunge. Certainly, on the second and subsequent passes, The Edge's familiar effects are there on top of the grind but the "U2 sound" was hard to identify to those who were new to the disc.
Another moment and the drum kit enters, sounding like Neil Young after a bad day.
Then, to top it off, there are beeps, ringing, and something that vaguely resembles a keyboard.
Suddenly Bono's voice arrives and we realize that this is, in fact, a U2 album. But something has changed. The band isn't innocent young men from Ireland, there's a sense that they've grown up -- learned something since we last checked in with them.
What follows is four and a half minutes of irony and cynicism that the audience isn't used to from the "formerly" spiritual quartet.
Needless to say, Achtung Baby and "Zoo Station" in particular caught many people off guard. The bastion of pure rock had suddenly gone overboard and jumped onto a style of extravagance that the world had thought was left behind in the eighties.
On closer inspection of the history, we recognize that U2 disappeared after their New Years' 1989 concert with the words that they would regroup and reexamine themselves and their work. Little did we know that they spent two grueling years in Germany with many near-breakups and hours of recorded material that four bootleg records and a "sequel" album still wouldn't contain.
"Zoo Station," then, is the introduction to something much bigger -- a revolution in the way U2 rocked and rolled the world. On it's own, it is a triumphant claim that the band is recognizing their changes and is welcoming them with pride. They acknowledge, in a way, that it may be misinterpreted, yet they are ready to deal with any reaction.
The station (presumably of the transportation variety, although in post-Zoo TV retrospect the broadcast type may have been an appropriate assumption) in question is a junction of where the band has been, where they are going, and a moment to reflect on the route taken. Achtung Baby will not be a destination, simply a stop on the way.
Title: Zoo Station
Album: Achtung Baby
Written by: U2
Released: November 1991
Next: Even Better than the Real Thing